Anna Elizabeth Dickinson transcended the boundaries imposed on women in the mid-19th century. She campaigned publicly for the Republican Party and delivered fiery speeches in support of abolition and equal rights for African-American men. She even attacked President Abraham Lincoln for his conservative racial views and his moderate Southern Reconstruction policies.
University of Florida Professor Matt Gallman recently published a biography of Dickinson titled America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, which explores how this atypical woman became a celebrity who exerted tremendous political influence on the rank and file of the Republican Party.
Who was Anna Elizabeth Dickinson?
Anna Dickinson was one of the 19th century’s most-celebrated orators and most famous women. She was a Philadelphian, the child of middle-class Quaker parents who were abolitionists. Her father died when she was an infant, and she was raised by her mother and four older siblings. She rose to great fame—just before the Civil War she became well known locally, and went on to become the era’s most famous female orator.
Why should anyone interested in the Civil War care about women’s history?
As somebody who’s worked on the cusp of both these fields for many years, I would say that there are at least three ways to address that question. One is, if I’m interested in what happened in the Civil War and why it happened, I need to think about what women were doing in order to fully understand what happened and why, in terms of politics and other issues. It is also important to understand how the home front performed under the stress of war, and any such analysis must include an examination of gender relationships and roles. The third way to frame the question is to ask how the war affected women. It had a transforming effect on society and on the status of women. I believe that Dickinson is not only a figure who did things that were interesting and important, but she left a legacy that influenced women in the next generation.
Anna seems unique. How did she compare with other privileged women in both her beliefs and how she acted upon them?
She was a paid Republican campaigner when no other women were doing that or had done that. She was an abolitionist, an advocate for women’s suffrage and women’s rights. But I would argue that the way she framed her arguments was not out of the tradition of domesticity. It was framed much more from a legal, or later on, a military or political argument. I think she had a masculine way of presenting issues to the public.
What sort of work did she do for the Republican Party?
By early 1863, Anna was actually getting paid for traveling up and down the East Coast and campaigning for Republican candidates at the state level. In her rhetoric, she was adept at attacking Confederates and Copperheads. She was at her strongest when pointing out to her audiences why they should not be listening to the Copperheads, and why the antiwar movement was morally bankrupt. Conversely, she was also very critical of Lincoln for his moderate stance toward Reconstruction, his slow progress for abolition and unequal treatment of black soldiers. So she was also a political voice putting pressure on the administration to move to the left.
Could you describe her meeting with Lincoln? I know there’s some confusion as to what happened.
There were at least two encounters with Lincoln. At one, she gave him a lecture in front of the House of Representatives when Lincoln was present. Although she disagreed with him, she endorsed his reelection. After her speech, Lincoln was asked to say a few words, but he declined, saying that he would be too embarrassed. Later on there was a meeting brokered by William R. Kelly—Kelly was a congressman from Philadelphia and one of her earliest sponsors, a Republican, an abolitionist but also an ally of Lincoln’s. Accounts differ as to what happened at that meeting. Dickinson claimed that she gave him a piece of her mind, and really pushed him to be more radical in his approach to Reconstruction. Kelly’s account, however, suggests that she was a little more muted and not quite as vocal as she later claimed to be. Regardless, she did push Lincoln, and the fact that she was granted a meeting is some evidence of her stature. We have no record of the meeting from the president’s side.
Did Dickinson’s views of Lincoln change radically after the president was assassinated?
She faced a dilemma because she had been critical of Lincoln, and after his death, some people advised her to keep her mouth shut. Others said, no, you must speak. In the end, she spoke publicly a few times about the martyred president, and essentially held true to her own sense of justice by saying, “I’m not going to come before you now and say I agreed with him, but he was a great man.”
Did she articulate an alternative plan for Reconstruction?
Not in what I would describe as a formal proposal. She, like many of her political brethren, favored punishing the South more aggressively. She was also in favor of more aggressively assisting freed slaves. But if there’s a statement where she really lays out a plan in a speech, I’m not aware of it.
You discuss what it meant to be a celebrity during the Civil War era. That’s not something most of us have thought about in 19th-century terms.
When I started this project, I wasn’t thinking in those terms, but photography is really crucial to celebrity. People would purchase her image. They would put it in a scrapbook right beside pictures of family, and I think they felt they owned her, in a sense. She walked a fine line: She and her family felt it was unseemly that photographers were hawking her image; on the other hand, she quickly learned that her fame was her most valuable commodity, and that fame was clearly related to photography, autograph hunters, etc. She’s like a contemporary celebrity who loves being famous but who hates it when people are constantly interrupting her.
Did Dickinson’s critics use her as a foil to criticize either the war effort, the women’s movement or issues related to emancipation?
She clearly was a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, and therefore in the center of a partisan debate. Her critics therefore tried to find the best way to minimize her power, and often used her gender to do so by claiming she was acting in an improper way. Those critics explicitly stated that she was not staying within her proper sphere. I think that the people who opposed her politically were also opposed to women’s suffrage and women’s rights.
What is Anna Dickinson’s lasting significance?
She was a real trailblazer in terms of the movement of women speaking in public about social reforms to actually being deeply engaged in partisan politics. That is overlooked, but significant. She’s also really interesting in the ways she reveals that women could enter the public sphere, and the limitations they faced. She was a mountain climber and a novelist; she traveled on the transcontinental railroad, one of the very first trips. She was always pushing the envelope.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.